Swn Festival 2009 - Cardiff
Swn has, in a very short space of time, become the most important annual cultural event in Cardiff. Mostly taking place in six venues within a stone's throw of Cardiff Castle, the festival brings the cream of independent music to Wales for a huge celebration. As seen by the knickerless photo in the press again this week, Cardiff has become synonymous with binge drinking and casual violence in recent years and it is genuinely thrilling to have such a relaxed, friendly event taking place in the shadow of the gin palaces of doom. Bands mingle with Joe Public as schedules are pored over, and poured over as the inevitable rains arrive and turn venues like the cosy 'Y Fuwch Goch' into steaming pits of geekdom. No need for dry ice, we've brought our own damp body heat.
Swn is not a place for the indecisive though as there are constantly tough decisions to be made. Will we head to Chapter Art Centre for the Oxjam record fair or will we opt for braving the throngs of Saturday shoppers to catch the bizarre spectacle of 27 piece riot grrrrls Gaggle as they perform in the rain of Womanby Street. Will it be The Twilight Sad out of town at The Gate or Girls in Y Fuwch Goch?. Girls win that battle on my ticksheet and Cate le Bon's ashen faced Nico-esque charms lose out to an evening with Los Campesinos. Occasionally you'll stumble into something completely baffling but wonderful like the post-rock hoedown experience of hereford teens Talons and be so captivated that you'll forget that you are supposed to be catching Sweet Baboo elsewhere. Too late, only 8pm and it is already one in/one out at some venues.
Johnny Foreigner are a highlight of the weekend. They are hellishly entertaining although they do admit to being crap at banter. Anyone seen the new Halloween film they enquire only to be met with a chorus of shrugs. Told you we were crap they pout before veering off into more quirly pop mayhem. There's no time to dally and watch the whole set though as Longcut are playing over the road and they are not to be missed, combining Donna Summer beats with post punk jangles to huge acclaim. Best band of Friday night, however, are Girls who take to the stage and carefully write out their setlist in triplicate before embarking upon a set which transcends the lo-fi approach of their recent album to emerge as genuinely enthralling songsmiths who capture the essence of classic early Elvis Costello and the emotion of Brian Wilson. The night doesn't end when the bands leave the stage and the party continues into the small hours with DJ sets from Huw Stephens and Mary Ann Hobbs.
Saturday starts in sedate fashion with a meander down to Chapter Arts Centre for a browse through the piles of donated cds at the OXJAM record fair. There's a few bargains to be had but The Music Fix is quickly distracted by the distant sound of squeals and thumps; no not a reprise of Marina and the Diamonds set but actually a bunch of kids dressed as Sumo wrestlers mashing each other into the ground. Fearing that this may be an hallucination brought about by sleep deprivation it is time to head back to base for some essential kip, but not before vital decision are made. It is a tough call but in the end The Drums are forsaken and tonight will be spent in the suburbs. We are going to church with Los Campesinos!
Aberdeen's Copy Haho gain bonus points for bursting ear drums with screaming feedback before they even begin playing. The holy venue clearly causes some discord within the band though and leads to a philosophical debate about inverted crosses on setlists, the wrath of God and the nature of fascism. Their energetic alt-rock proves to be the perfect counterbalance to the percussive pop stylings of the very moreish Munch Munch. We may be spending the evening in a single venue rather than the traditional swn experience of scooting between bars but, as the bands alternate between stages on two floors, there's still a mad stampede to enjoy every 30 minutes. This is the most exercise I've had since, oh, since the last swn shows.
The first half of the evening has, perhaps in deference to the venue, been a relatively genteel event but this state of calm is brutally dismembered by the whirlwind arrival of Dananananakroyd who melt any remaining ice by splitting the audience into two halves and orchestrating a mass group hug. There's rarely a moment in which at least one of the band is not in the crowd, on top of the crowd or crawling along the floor under the crowd. It is a performance of utter mayhem and unpredictable, effervescent abandon and underlines the fact that swn is an event rather than just another gig.
It is an unenviable task to follow these scenes of carnage but lovable locals Los Campesinos! rise to the challenge, literally throwing themselves into a triumphant show which sees Gareth chipping a tooth as he communes with the crowd. New member Kim slots seamlessly into the lineup and although tracks like 'Knee Deep at ATP' remain highlights the inclusion of a handful of new tracks,including current single 'There Are Listed Buildings', indicate that the new album is going to be overflowing with pure pop honey. There's little in the way of sugary tweeness in the live show though and Gareth's valedictory speech is followed by a storming conclusion which results in a display of crowd surfing not seen in Cardiff since the Metallica/Anthrax double header. Ears ringing bands and punters filter off into the night, most heading for the Silent Disco. With Green Man and Swn, Wales is developing a monopoly in staging civilised communal events, I don't know if we deserve it but thank God, Huw Stephens and John Rostron that Swn is still as essential as ever.
Masters in France
(words and photography: Steve Burnett)